After reaching town and saying goodbye to Penpa and Ugyen, I head to one of my favourite momo dens for a plate of the tasty, steamed dumplings before catching a cab to the base of a small mountain rising half way up the ridge line on the western side of the Thimphu Valley. I’ve heard that there’s a nice walk from the telecommunications tower at the top of the mountain to a small goempa located in the pine forests overlooking the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and Samtenling Palace (home of Bhutan’s fifth and current King). And the walk is indeed beautiful – an undulating single trail hugging the ridge line through thick forest that makes you feel as if you could be miles from any civilisation, let alone the capital city. A few mountainbikers zip past and I promise myself to return with my bike for a bit of single trail fun.
Reaching the goempa I am greeted by a friendly elderly dog who sniffs my hand and rolls over for a pat on the belly. He trots after me as I walk down past an enormous prayer wheel towards the goempa perched on the edge of a cliff. The views of the valley are beautiful and the goempa is deserted except for a couple of elderly pilgrims spinning handheld prayer wheels and reciting mantras. It feels so good to have actually done some exercise and to not be thinking about teaching that I enter the goempa brimming with happiness and good will. I am greeted by three carpenters and a policeman – the goempa is under going renovations for damages sustained in an earthquake.
The policeman, Sangay Dorji, greets me with a two-handed handshake, welcoming me like a guest of honour. He asks me where I’m from, we chat and he tells me that although he is in his mid-thirties he is still a bachelor (something almost unheard of in Bhutan) and that he is using his energies to try and pass his Class XII exams. As a youth he didn’t pass Class X and has spent the last three years studying part time around his full time work as a policeman. He loves Buddhist scriptures and culture and is studying Choeki (ancient Tibetan) and Bhutanese culture. He failed his Class XII exam last year but is trying again this year. He is so earnest and hopeful in his aspirations and honest about the difficulties of his struggles that I can't help but warm to him and he is wonderfully generous in teaching me about the history of the goempa. Such a different experience from visiting temples in India where every second person tries to force you into accepting them as their guide and then tries to extort ridiculous amounts of money out of you afterwards. Sangay takes me into the temple to see the two story high Sakyamuni statue which he tells me was built by Bhutan’s eighth Desi (secular ruler of Bhutan predating the monarchy) in 1751 to atone for the sins of murdering two of his rivals.
|Sangay Dorji the policeman-cum-cultural expert|
On the walk back to the BBS tower, I meet two Thimphu locals – a retired Dzongkha teacher who taught for thirty-four years and his son-in-law who works for the Bhutan Power Corporation. The son-in-law, also called Penpa, completed his masters degree in Newcastle and is happy to talk about Australia and the cultural differences that separate the two countries and their education systems.
“I would arrive at a barbecue after being asked to bring a plate," he tells me, "And in Bhutan if you go to someone’s house for a Rimdro (cleansing ritual) you always take an empty plate to eat your food off. So I would turn up with an empty plate and then be so embarrassed when I realised that my plate was supposed to have food on it!”
I tell him the story I have heard of some of the first Bhutanese students to study in Australia – mostly mature aged students some of whom had never been on a plane before, let alone outside of the subcontinent. When they arrived, the Vice-Chancellor of their Queensland university came down to welcome them.
“Have you come here to die?” he asked them.
The Bhutanese students were shocked.
“Oh no, sir. We came here to study!”
“No, no, I mean did you come here to die?”
Again they protested: “No, no sir, we came here to study!”
Some confusion and consternation ensued until the students eventually realised that the VC has been asking them whether they had arrived within the last 24 hours.
Penpa and I shared many more interesting conversations on the one hour walk back down to the outer suburbs of Thimphu, talking about the upcoming primary elections, the merits of democracy versus a benevolent monarchy (he believes the monarch worked better) and the challenges of raising children in a digital age. He invited me to his house for tea and then drove me across town and up to a hotel high on the opposite ridge of the Thimphu Valley where I was meeting Lucy and her RTC colleagues for a work dinner.
His relaxed and uncomplicated companionship and Sangay Dorji’s sweet openness and determination to make the most of his opportunities in life, coupled with the beautiful walk and uplifting goempa were such beautiful reminders of all the reasons I love being here in Bhutan and what a special and unique place this is – the perfect cure to a body and mind full of end-of-week stress and frustrations.